Murdering Women, Killing Childhood: Conflating Women and Girl Victims of Ciudad Juárez’s Feminicidios

Murdering Women, Killing Childhood: Conflating Women and Girl Victims of Ciudad Juárez’s Feminicidios

[Kate McInnes is a practicing lawyer based in Vancouver, Canada, and a student in the M.Sc. in International Human Rights Law program at the University of Oxford]

In 2023, 25 people in the border town of Ciudad Juárez died by feminicidio, or feminicide — the highest number in Mexico, which itself is a global epicentre of gender-based violence. The year began with a triple homicide near the Universidad Tecnológica on January 28, and closed with an aggravated homicide on December 27 in the central El Barreal neighbourhood.

In line with the international community’s rhetoric around feminicidio in Juárez, the media coverage of these murders invariably referred to the victims as women (mujeres). Yet, while all of the deceased were female, only two were adults: one of the victims of the triple homicide and the victim in El Barreal were just 17 years old at the time of their deaths. In other words, they were not mujeres at all — they were children.

This distinction is far from semantic. Referring to the victims of Juárez’s feminicidio exclusively as “women” is evidence of an adultification bias against migrant Latina girls, which erodes the identity of child victims and mischaracterises the offences against them. The effect is that Mexico has been largely absolved, in the courts of law and public opinion, of fulfilling legal obligations it has under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international accords to prevent and prosecute offences against children. 

The reality is that as many as half of Juárez’s most infamous cases of serial feminicidios have been committed against child victims. There is little appreciation among commentators, scholars, and human rights practitioners that, factually and legally, sexual violence against underage girls in Juárez is not “only” rape, but child sexual abuse; their murders are not “only” femicide, but pedicide. Accuracy requires that we revise our language when referring to the victims of this tragedy, and justice demands that we revise our efforts before international and regional justice mechanisms to reflect a child rights approach. Doing so may generate the momentum necessary to stanch this human rights epidemic, which, despite a corpus of scholarly work proposing solutions, continues unabated.

Feminicidios in Ciudad Juárez

The murders of women and girls in Juárez have fluctuated in intensity over the past three decades, but never stopped. In 1993, a clear pattern began to emerge: the victims — described by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in its 2005 inquiry as “pretty, very young women, including adolescents, living in conditions of poverty and vulnerability”, who were usually students or maquila workers — would disappear on their way to or from their homes, sometimes in quiet neighbourhoods under the cover of night but often in broad daylight on city streets. Their bodies would be found some time later in remote areas of the city, bearing signs of extreme physical and sexual abuse. A final and particularly cruel indignity to the victims was the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators; in the words of Asma Jahangir, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, the deceased were generally regarded by state officials as “‘only’ young girls, with no particular social status, and who therefore were regarded as expendable.”

Despite local and international condemnation, Juárez’s feminicidios — a term coined to describe the particular brutality inflicted on these women and girls, which stem from misogyny and structural inequalities and occurs within a broader context of impunity and state implication — have actually increased over time, as much as 137% between 2015 and 2021. A number of causes have contributed to this phenomenon, including sociopolitical instability caused by the power vacuum that followed from the murder of long-standing Juárez cartel leader Rafael Aguilar Guajardo in 1993, the rise of the maquila industry and corporate indifference from American-owned transnational factories, and the geography of Juárez itself. More than anything, though, the feminicidios have been attributed to a broader culture of machismo and misogyny.

The victims’ ages, however, have never been probed as a causal factor or accorded any real significance in analyses and activism around Juárez’s feminicidios. This is surprising, as a cursory review of the data demonstrates that almost half of serial, situational femicides in Juárez involve the death of girls under the age of 18 — who, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 646 of the Mexican Federal Civil Code, are legally defined as children. 

Consider, for example, the 55 names enshrined at Campo Algodonero, erected in memory of the city’s victims of femicide. Of the 46 people whose names I could ascertain through digital archives, 21 were children: Adriana Sarmiento Enríquez (15), Almendra Valeria Martínez Montana (17), Andrea Guerrero Venzor (15), Brenda Berenice Castillo García (17), Celia Cruz Castrejón Villagrana (17), Deisy Ramírez Muñoz (16), Diana Janeth Flores López (14), Elizabeth Irigoyen Lucero (17), Éricka Ivonne Ruiz Zavala (16), María Guadalupe Pérez Montes (17), Mayra Juliana Reyes Solís (17), Merlín Elizabeth Rodríguez Sáenz (17), Miriam Cristina Gallegos Venegas (17), Paloma Angélica Escobar Ledezma (16), Rosalba María Pizarro Ortega (16), Rubí Marisol Fraire Escobedo (16), Selene Elizabeth García Hernández (14), Sonia Ivett Sánchez Ramírez (13), Verónica Hernández Gómez (3), Yanira Fraire Jáquez (15), and Yanira Gutiérrez Ramírez (17).

Similarly, of the 24 bodies recovered at the Arroyo el Navajo site in 2012, at least 13 were children: Adriana Sarmiento Enríquez (15), Brenda Berenice Castillo García (17), Deysi Ramírez Muñoz (16), Esmeralda Castillo (14), Hilda Gabriela Rivas Campos (16), Jazmin Salazar Ponce (17), Jazmín Taylen Celis Murillo (17), Jessica Leticia Peña García (15), Lidia Ramos Mancha (17), Lizbeth Aviles García (17), María Guadalupe Pérez Montes (17), Perla Ivonne Aguirre González (15), and Yanira Frayre Jáquez (15).

While the demographics of these two cases may not be entirely representative of feminicidios in Juárez more generally, they are significant enough to warrant attention and concern. Yet, most of the major responses from human rights organs — including the 2003 report by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the 2005 inquiry by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the 2006 report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women — do not distinguish at all between adult and child victims, beyond the standard phrasing of “women and girls.” Likewise, when these crimes have been reported in the mainstream media, they are almost always described as crimes against women; when the victim’s identity as a minor is noted, it is usually in the context of explaining why the deceased cannot be named, as a result of publication bans for underage victims of crime.

The Adultification of Girl Victims of Feminicidio

What are the reasons for, and the significance of, this erasure of girl victims from discourse on feminicidios in Juárez? Certainly, it reflects the complexity of multiple discrimination and the need for an intersectional approach to human rights rhetoric and advocacy. It also points to conceptual haziness between childhood and adolescence, and adolescence and adulthood, in international human rights law. Most importantly, however, it is evidence of an implicit gendered, racial, and class bias against child victims, and a perpetuation of the harmful trend of adultification.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has recognised adolescence as a stage of childhood “characterised by growing opportunities, capacities, aspirations, energy and creativity, but also significant vulnerability” and “exposure to a range of risks.” One of the “risks” of adolescence that certain children face is adultification, a term that was first used to explain the unique experience of Black girls in the United States in their interactions with the education and justice systems. In Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Dr. Monique W. Morris described the phenomenon of adultification as follows:

The assignment of more adult-like characteristics to the expressions of young Black girls is a form of age compression. Along this truncated age continuum, Black girls are likened more to adults than to children and are treated as if they are willfully engaging in behaviors typically expected of Black women. This compression [has] stripped Black girls of their childhood freedoms [and] renders Black girlhood interchangeable with Black womanhood.

The experience of child victims of Juárez’s feminicidios reflect how adultification occurs through both socialization and stereotyping. On the one hand, these children are compelled to “function at a more mature developmental stage because of situational context and necessity” (p. 4), given the poverty and the migrant status of their families. On the other hand, they are acting within an environment that normalizes the hyper-sexualization of children, particularly adolescent girls. The result is not only the premature death of childhood, but the false post-mortem perception that the child victims of these crimes possessed adult qualities and capabilities.

Case in Point: The Cotton Field Case

The best example of the adultification of child victims in Juárez can be found in González et al. v. Mexico, a 2009 judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The case addressed the kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of Esmeralda Herrera Monreal (15), Laura Berenice Ramos Monárrez (17), and Claudia Ivette González (20), whose bodies, along with those of five other victims, had been discovered on November 6, 2001, in a cotton field (hence the moniker “the Cotton Field Case,” or “Caso del Campo Algodonero”). The IACHR found that Mexico had failed to discharge its obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights and the Belém do Pará Convention to prevent and prosecute the disappearances and deaths of female persons in Juárez, and in doing so perpetuated a culture of impunity that allowed these crimes to occur. 

The judgment was widely lauded as the most progressive decision in the Inter-American women’s rights jurisprudence at the time, but it was not without its detractors. Juana I. Costa Lopez, for one, has argued that the court’s feminist approach “subsumed all of the other possible causes of discrimination”, and additional characteristics shared by the victims, including their migrant status or employment in the maquila industry, “were only used to reinforce gender discrimination rather than to consider other types of discrimination as autonomous violations.” 

This intersectional cecity extends to the ages of the victims — particularly Esmeralda and Laura, who were children at the time of their deaths. The IACHR did determine that Mexico had violated Article 19 (Rights of the Child) of the American Convention on Human Rights, which imposed an obligation to “adopt all the positive measures necessary to ensure the rights of the disappeared girls.” Beyond this discrete finding, however, the fact that two of the three victims were children did not factor into the IACHR’s analysis at all. The victims were referred to as mujeres throughout the judgment, and the crimes against them were understood entirely as violence against women. There was no appreciation that the extreme cruelty inflicted on these two girls was, factually and legally, acts of child abuse.

This stands in stark contrast to other cases decided by the IACHR, in which the victims’ status as children were central to the court’s factual understanding and legal analysis. Consider, for instance, Villagran-Morales et al. v. Guatemala, known as the “Street Children” (“Niños de la Calle”) case, even though two of the five victims were over 18 at the time of their deaths. The three child victims — Julio Roberto Caal Sandoval (15), Jovito Josué Juárez Cifuentes (17), and Anstraum Aman Villagrán Morales (17) — were repeatedly referred to as boys (niños), and never referred to in the judgment as “men” (hombres). The IACHR’s failure to recognise the 15- and 17-year-old girl victims in the Cotton Field case as children, as they had for boys the same age in Villagran-Morales, clearly betrays a gender bias that acknowledges the childhood status of males, but not females.


Juárez’s feminicidios will continue for as long as its root causes go unchanged. Among these root causes is the practice of adultification, which commentators and human rights practitioners have helped sustain by conflating the child and adult victims of these horrific crimes. A reconfiguration of our understanding of the subjects of these feminicidios is necessary, in order to understand the full extent of this human rights crisis and reinforce the humanity and dignity of its victims.

Photo attribution: “Crosses erected where the corpses of eight women were found in 1996” by Iose (public domain)

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